A Strategy for a Negative Image

By: Mark Athitakis

How the CFA Institute responded to bad press in its industry. [Titled "Reputation Repair" in the print edition.]

These are tough times for the financial services business. The recession meant losses for many firms, while recent high-profile stories about fraud and corruption have given the industry a black eye.

The CFA Institute, which supports and credentials investment professionals, was getting an earful from its members who wanted it to defend their honor. "When there are problems in the industry—and especially when a particular individual has run off with millions of dollars—that kind of press focus unfortunately paints with a bad brush everybody in the industry, not just those few people who are engaging in unacceptable behavior," says Raymond J. DeAngelo, managing director, stakeholder services, in the institute's marketing and communications division.

The association started by hitting the road, meeting with more than 100 financial industry experts around the world for their input about best practices for professionals and how to communicate them to both investment advisors and their clients. That work resulted in the Future of Finance project, which is built on a 10-point "Statement of Investor Rights" and other methods of promoting industry ethics, including a list of 50 ways to restore trust in the investment industry.

The CFA Institute promoted the importance of the initiative internally by making it a cross-functional effort. "On the leadership team, what we do is identify what we consider critical projects. We identify our star individuals who have high potential and true leadership characteristics and try to engage them," says Ashvin Vibhakar, executive sponsor of the Future of Finance project. "I have a team of 14 individuals, and about 20 percent of their time is committed to this project. And these are drawn from all aspects of the organization. It is not a one-department project—truly the entire organization is engaged in it."

Buy-in from the board was easy, given the spate of bad news. "I would be hard pressed to think of an initiative that has come forward in the past two decades where our board has been more enthusiastic," says DeAngelo. To put the message into practice, the CFA Institute is hitting the road again, sponsoring discussions in South America and Europe about regulation, retirement security, transparency, and other issues in the industry. "All of our conferences now have a session on Future of Finance," says Vibhakar.

Eventually, though, the initiative will look less like an initiative and more like just part of the association's work. "Our goal is that in two years we don't call it the Future of Finance project," says Vibhakar. "It'll be so much a part of the DNA of the organization that we don't have to call it a project."

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.